Cowgirl Vacation: A Women's Escape at a California Ranch

PHOTO The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort is nestled in the Santa Ynez Mountains, up from the Pacific Hills and a stone?s throw from Michael Jackson?s infamous Neverland, some 45 minutes away in Santa Barbara.

"Y'ready to lope?" my wrangler asks, playfully challenging me. I'm sitting atop the first horse I've ridden since taking a Palomino named Sunset through the break of the waves along the sands of Bermuda some 10 years prior.

Beneath my fitted denim shirt beats the heart of a true frontierswoman; to my mind, I've been loping ever since I first watched Miss Barbara Stanwyck take her mount on my favorite TV western of the 1960s, "The Big Valley," a show set in some mythical California landscape not unlike this one where the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort is nestled in the Santa Ynez Mountains, up from the Pacific Hills and a stone's throw from Michael Jackson's infamous Neverland, some 45 minutes away in Santa Barbara.

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My horse, Redman, is no more prepared to lope than I am, as he meanders up the steep climb, past Alisal's verdant topography with three centuries' worth of red oak and amber density covering its 10,000 acres. My "trusty old steed," as the Alisal staff refers to him, has seemingly devoured half the countryside since we saddled up an hour before, stopping to nibble every branch within reach. But I haven't traveled all the way from New York City just to graze, or let a man give me directions.

This all-female weekend is empowering, so I tear a tree branch from Redman's bit to let him know who's boss, while nudging him into submission -- and a quick trot! -- with my stirrups. As I steady myself in the saddle, adjusting to the speed of his motion and commanding the reins, I feel like a true cowgirl.

We're loping, all right, moving at quite a clip past Alisal's endless sycamore groves, as my wrangler rewards our progress with a shortcut that finds us first to our lakeside seafood barbecue. We dismount and tack our horses while we await the other 16 cowgirls of all ages and from all across the United States who have joined this popular weekend, many by referral from other friends whose idea of a great getaway for girls excludes chaps, unless they can be worn to ride in.

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Somehow, I skipped the adolescent craze for ponies that excites so many girls. The stuffy restraint of English riding, with all its rituals and regulations, too much resembled the regimen of my all-girls' school. What was the point of getting on a horse if you couldn't blaze a trail like Belle Star?

That my cowgirl points of reference were limited to television and movies probably had something to do with my signing up for the Cowgirl Boot Camp at Alisal Guest Ranch amid the Santa Barbara wine country.

Over the course of four days, I'd learn to wrangle a herd of faux steer, cook a mean rack of ribs and ride the frontier of some 50 scenic trails. Never mind that "roping doggies" usually means putting my dachshund on her lead, or that the term "cowboy" seems less a lifestyle than a fashion statement; none of that deterred me. I'm a girl, after all, who spent her fourth decade mastering sky-diving, surfing and ice-climbing. If I could crest the steepest mountain in Vermont, with pick still firmly in hand, surely herding cattle and squashing spiders at Cowgirl Boot Camp would be a snap.

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